The traditional annual performance evaluation system has recently come under attack, particularly because of its ineffectiveness in helping develop great performance. A once-a-year snapshot forced down the throats of managers that doesn’t develop excellence? Shocking! :o) The research suggests that more frequent feedback provides better results. But what separates the inspired manager from the mediocre is the content of that feedback.
Where the feedback system usually breaks down is where it’s typically focused. Managers often spend most of their time providing “constructive” feedback. But they define constructive as improving people’s weaknesses or eliminating mistakes. In fact, constructive is defined as “serving a useful purpose; tending to build up”. It is so much easier to build upon strengths than weaknesses!
If you want excellent performance, focus on what’s going well and how to turn those results up. Great managers share their reactions as to what went well because those are the areas with the highest potential for improvement.
What is a “strength”? Interestingly, a strength isn’t necessarily something you’re good at. For example, you might be an excellent public speaker. But if it drains you of energy, public speaking isn’t a strength. “It’s a gift that you are cursed with,” as Marcus Buckingham said. A strength is something that you are good at and energizes you. If you need to take a nap after something you’re good at, it isn’t a strength.
Don’t bosses have to improve employees’ weaknesses to ensure they don’t make mistakes? Of course, but understand that mistake-free is not the same as great performance. There are many strategies to minimize mistakes but you will never turn that weakness into their strength.
If you want to fix mistakes, focus on what step in the process they missed. This is tricky. Procedures are helpful (at Bellrock, we implement process controls all the time!) but telling someone to “do it my way” assumes that they perceive the world as you do. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that their life experience is different than yours. You can share your perceptions but that employee still must figure out how to get from A to B.
If you want to turn -8 performance to 0, go for it. We all have weaknesses, and it’s important that those weaknesses don’t detract from our strengths. Most feedback, however, should be focused on taking a +3 to +10.
Some feedback is better than no feedback. Do not abandon your annual (or better yet, semi-annual) performance evaluation system until you have a process in place to deliver feedback, ideally face-to-face on a regular basis. If you want some tips on how to get started, this might help.
Practice Makes Progress
It’s tough to break habits (see “Weaknesses” above) but it’s possible if you’re motivated. Management is a practice. If you deliberately choose to change your feedback style to one that is truly constructive, swim with the current. Pick the team members that are already strong performers and start reinforcing those strengths. Slowly the habit will grow until it becomes second nature.